Decisions, Decisions: Questions to Consider in Choosing Among Acceptances

As school and college acceptance offers come in each spring, parents whose kids I’ve been counseling ask me, “Which one would you choose if it were your child?”

Well, it’s not my child.

And it’s more helpful anyway to reflect the question back with a series of other questions. That’s because as a counselor my job is to inform and empower the student to make the right pick. Ultimately, when it’s time to put a St. Grottlesex Academy decal on the car, or pull on a College of My Dreams sweatshirt, the student really feels, “This is my school.”

So here are some questions that parents can pass along to their sons and daughters to help them decide among acceptance offers:

  1. How do the schools compare on revisit days? If you can swing it, revisit your top choices in the spring during accepted student revisit days. You’ll no longer feel the spotlight of being a candidate, since you’re in charge of selecting a winner. And you’ll be surprised how different the campus feels now that you are several months (or more) older. You’ll also be around many of your future peers and teachers, not just nervous kids in the welcome center lobby, and admission officers and tour guides. Meanwhile, the contrast of one campus to another will prove revelatory.
  2. Do you feel the love? You’ll get an initial sense about whether you’ll be happy at the school during the revisit. And you want to commit the next few years of your life to a community that truly wants you. Consider whether admissions officers follow up on the acceptance letters, and whether campus members outside of the admissions office contact you. After you’re in, it feels great to have an eager coach or teacher or a future classmate reach out to you. That love will carry over to move-in day through graduation.
  3. Is big fish or big pond better for you? Consider where you will be the most successful. Where you can graduate at the top of the class to launch your next step. Where you can make the varsity team or earn a lead in the play. This is why we at McMillan Education are often wary about encouraging a student to hang in there too long on a waitlist: if you are pulled in to the community that late, it could be really tough to excel. But for some, the most demanding school may indeed offer the vast pond where they can swim with the fastest since they have found the right balance of challenge and support.
  4. Is prestige more important than fit? It’s natural to fall back on rankings and reputation when first trying to make the big decision about a college or school. But remember that reputation is built on the past: What’s most important are the next few years ahead, and how you fit in. You should be able to close your eyes, imagine yourself waking up on a Monday morning – and being excited to walk out of your dorm room into class with teachers who excite you and a set of peers that you want to study and hang out with. That’s what we talk about when we talk about The Right Fit.
  5. Should you trust your head or your heart? Many of our students find it helpful to process pros and cons via lists or spreadsheets that break down categories like social, academic, extracurricular. Or they find bouncing options by a trusted mentor or two to be helpful. But just as asking too many people about your application essay can get confusing, limit your heart-to-heart discussions to a trusted few – including your family and your McMillan Education counselor, of course. And realize that beyond the logic of lists and the reason your ‘head’ wants to exercise, you eventually have to transcend the logical and trust your instinct as to what exactly feels right. In short: follow your heart.

Because if you do you your due diligence with a revisit, get a sense of how much you are wanted, reflect about how you fit into your future pond, and focus on fit, your heart will make the right choice.

What’s the ultimate goal? A student who is smiling and who feels appropriately challenged will thrive.

Finally, true confessions: I actually have answered the “What if it were your child” question a few times, since both my sons are in their 20s now. The first time around, I made sure my oldest son visited not just his top two boarding school choices but also his third – the one he ended up committing to since the history teacher sent him a book about World War II, the football coach gave him a T-shirt and talked up the preseason bonding, and during revisit day the Classics teacher offered to do an independent study with him. He proudly wore that T-shirt around all summer.

About The Author

Don McMillan, M.A., M.F.A.